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October 2008 Archive for The Truth about Trade

RSS By: Dean Kleckner, AgWeb.com

Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.

Searching for the Great Pumpkin

Oct 31, 2008
Hey Charlie Brown fans – are you ready for this?
 
Thad Starr took the top prize at the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off earlier this month in California: His winning entry, placed on a scale with the assistance of a forklift, came in at 1,528 pounds.
 
That’s about the size of a mature Holstein cow. Starr’s Oregon-grown pumpkin enlarged so fast that in August it was putting on about 30 pounds per day.
 
I wish I could lose that much in six months!
 
Sadly, Starr failed to set a world record. That honor still belongs to Joe Jutras of Rhode Island, who grew a 1,689-pound monster last year.
 
Talk about a Great Pumpkin!
 
Of course, I’m not about to place one of these behemoths near my front door tonight for Halloween. It might scare away the trick-or-treaters, especially those who are trying to look like the Headless Horseman.
 
Even worse, one of these Goliath-sized pumpkins would probably bust my porch.
 
Yet I’m amazed at what goes into these enormous gourds, a variety known as Atlantic Giants. As with any kind of crop, growing really big pumpkins takes careful work. Here’s how Elizabeth Royte described the process a number of years ago in Outside magazine:
 
Giant pumpkins are nursed on a rarefied diet of manure, composted vegetable matter, and vast quantities of water. For plants that seem to advertise their own robustness, giant pumpkins can be astonishingly fragile. If exposed to the summer sun, their skin burns and blisters. If they go thirsty, they wilt. Neglect to remove a stone from the soil under the fruit, and you lose five pounds as the pumpkin grows around it. A thumbnail dent can cost several ounces.”
 
The results aren’t pretty: Atlantic Giants are huge, not handsome. Their color is pale rather than bright orange and their shapes are lopsided rather than pleasingly round. Their thick walls aren’t well suited for jack-o’-lanterns, but they’ve given rise to what the Wall Street Journal has called “a new kind of performance art.” With chisels and power tools, carvers can turn Atlantic Giants into fantastic organic sculptures. Shopping malls, casinos, and zoos put them on display--at least until bacteria turn them to rot, in the same way bacteria eventually will destroy pumpkins of any size.
 
This new micro-industry is the ingenious result of agricultural persistence and scientific know-how. Atlantic Giants never have grown in a wild state of nature. Instead, they’re products of the human imagination. More than three decades ago, they were hybridized by Howard Dill, a Canadian who wanted to grow massive pumpkins. (He still sells seeds and runs a website with growing tips.)
 
Before Dill, the biggest pumpkins weighed a couple hundred pounds. That’s impressive, but compared to the leviathans of today, they’re a bunch of runts.
 
There’s a lesson in this with respect to the food crisis. Everyone says the world needs to grow more food, due to a swelling global population and a booming demand for more calories in developing countries. To complicate matters, we’re supposed to perform this feat without taking up much more than our existing farmland.
 
No, I’m not going to suggest that we go on a diet of giant pumpkins. But I do believe that we can grow our way out of this problem by increasing our yields through sound management and advances in biotechnology.
 
Farming is one of the oldest jobs in the world--it comes right after hunting and gathering. Yet farmers keep on improving. We’re not only growing insanely oversized pumpkins, but we’re also harvesting more corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops from the very same acres that our parents and grandparents toiled on.
 
And still we need higher yields. So while a handful of us are striving to set world records in pumpkin contests--could there be a one-ton pumpkin in our future?--most of us are simply working to produce greater amounts of staple crops.
 
Tonight, Charlie Brown’s friend Linus may go out and wait once again for the Great Pumpkin, who famously never comes. The promise of biotechnology, however, is already here and it will help us feed the world.
 
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org
 
 
 

Intelligent Activism

Oct 17, 2008
Australia is so far away that I can almost understand what a badly informed character in an Oscar Wilde play says about the land Down Under: “It must be so pretty with all the dear little kangaroos flying about.”
 
For Queensland farmer Jeff Bidstrup, kangaroos aren’t cute marsupials that seem ready-made for Animal Planet documentaries. To him, they’re big-time pests.
 
A worse problem than kangaroos, however, is the anti-biotech lobby in Bidstrup’s country. It seeks to deny him and every other Australian farmer a right that American farmers can take for granted: The ability to choose what seeds they want to plant, including those that are improved through the latest genetic technologies.
 
A few years ago, Bidstrup decided to fight back--and that’s why he is the recipient of the Dean Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award for 2008.
 
The board of Truth About Trade and Technology established the prize last year, in honor of its founder and chairman. It seeks to recognize “strong leadership, vision, and resolve in advancing the right of all farmers to choose the technology and tools that will improve the quality, quantity, and availability of agricultural products around the world.” The award will be given out annually in conjunction with the World Food Prize. In 2007, it went to Rosalie Ellasus of the Philippines.
 
“We’ve had biotech cotton for more than a decade,” says Bidstrup, who grows grain and cotton on about 12,000 acres in the Darling Downs region of Queensland, in northeast Australia. “I immediately saw the difference it made and understood that this was a wonderful technology for farmers.”
 
But then the anti-GM activists struck.
 
“One of Australia’s states banned GM food crops, then all of them but Queensland passed their own moratoriums in a matter of weeks,” says Bidstrup. (There are six states in Australia.)
 
“There was almost no discussion. We were caught off guard, completely flat footed.”
 
For a while, nobody did much of anything. “We all thought someone else would take care of the problem,” says Bidstrup. The result: Inaction.
 
One day, Bidstrup saw professional protestor Percy Schmeiser on television. “He was standing in a wheat field, explaining how awful GM crops are,” says Bidstrup. “But the field was full of weeds. It was a disgusting farm. It made me upset.”
 
That got Bidstrup thinking: “I have two sons who want to be farmers. I started worrying about their future in this business. I realized that they aren’t going to have one unless somebody does something about all of this anti-biotech nonsense.”
 
So Bidstrup founded Producers Forum, a coalition of farmers who work to educate Australians about the benefits of biotechnology and to repeal moratoriums based on the kind of ignorance that allows some people to believe that kangaroos have wings.
 
Earlier this year, they succeeded in persuading the governments of New South Wales and Victoria to lift their bans and came close to convincing South Australia to do the same.
 
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Bidstrup. “We’re going to make even more in 2009 and beyond.”
 
They do it through intelligent activism. Bidstrup and his farmer allies concentrate on the media, giving interviews to journalists and writing letters to the editor. Bidstrup himself speaks with enormous authority: He has farmed for 40 years, serves as the director of a company that sells a certified organic product, belongs to a co-op that processes organic crops, and is a former organic grower himself.
 
In one recent letter, he pointed out that his countrymen depend on GM crops everyday: “In Australia, our intensive animal industries are reliant on imported and domestic GM protein, and we rely on imported GM soy of 90 per cent of our soy extract that is used in most processed foods.”
 
It makes no sense for Australia to stop its own farmers from growing these crops: Under a ban, “the chickens will still eat GM soy, we will still eat the chickens, but the profits and environmental benefits will be exported to our competitors.”
 
Because of the efforts of the 2008 Kleckner laureate, the truth about biotechnology is on the verge of victory in Australia.
 
Let’s look forward to the day when Bidstrup can go back to worrying full time about kangaroos.
 
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org
 
 
 
 

Meeting the Challenge to Feed the World

Oct 10, 2008
The U.S. presidential election is less than a month away--which makes this as good a time as any to remember that politics isn’t everything.
 
No matter who is in or out of power in Washington, India, Brazil or the UK, we’ll always need farmers.
 
In “Gulliver’s Travels,” author Jonathan Swift tried to put things in perspective: “Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”
 
That’s the spirit behind next week’s third annual Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable, sponsored by Truth About Trade and Technology and coinciding with the World Food Prize in Des Moines. We’re bringing together 21 farmers from 20 countries on six continents.
 
The vision is to build a global network of farmers who support and will promote access to technology for all farmers, regardless of where they’re from, how much they harvest, what their governments tell them they can or cannot grow, or even the agronomic practices they use.
 
The goal hardly could be more important. The head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Jacques Diouf, recently said that the world must double its food production by 2050.
 
“We are facing a challenge of enormous proportions,” he said. He called for spending $30 billion per year to achieve this goal.
 
There’s no guarantee that goal can be met. Farmers grow more food today than at any point in human history, but the number of malnourished people in the world actually jumped by 75 million last year. The culprit is soaring food prices: Demand is rising relative to supply.
 
The answer is to increase supply. The solutions involve a more robust trading environment, improved infrastructure, and better equipment. Fertilizer is critical, too. Says Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and founder of the World Food Prize: “Without fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”
 
The crucial element, however, may be biotechnology. Genetically modified crops are a proven method of boosting yield without requiring more land, chemicals or fuel. Very soon, GM plants may also require less water.
 
Yet access to it varies from place to place. The farmers that we’re hosting in Iowa next week are diverse not just in geography, but also in their ability to use biotechnology.
 
Enrique Duhau of Argentina runs a huge farming operation--190,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Because Argentina accepts biotechnology, the vast majority of his crops are genetically enhanced. Yet his nation’s export tariffs make it difficult to sell what he grows to foreign buyers.
 
“Countries should be open to foreign trade, because trade benefits all parties involved,” says Duhau. “Markets are quite closed in Argentina.”
 
In Romania, Valentin Petrosu doesn’t have to deal with sky-high export tariffs, but he wishes he had the same easy access to biotechnology that Duhau enjoys. A few years ago, Petrosu was allowed to plant biotech soybeans. Then his country banned them when they joined the EU, due to unfounded fears about their safety. “We had one good crop, and they took it away from us,” he complains.
 
The farms of Duhau and Petrosu dwarf that of Mekala Velangan Reddy of India. He farms biotech cotton on a plot of 27 acres. He praises GMOs for how they have increased his yields and income. “We save time and pesticide sprays, there is more predictability, and stability of production,” he says. “Biotech seeds can boost productivity, and improve the yields and status of India’s farmers.”
 
Another small-resource farmer, Alfred M. Nderitu of Kenya, dreams of using biotechnology on his farm. He recently visited South Africa, which has accepted biotech crops, and wishes his own country would pass legislation that allows farmers to take advantage of this tool of modern agriculture.
 
If we’re going to meet the huge challenge of doubling food production by 2050, our governments will have to enable the success of Duhau, Petrosu, Reddy, and Nderitu. These farmers come from different circumstances and face different problems, but all would benefit from policies that unleash their potential to grow as much as they can.
 
Unfortunately, we can’t rely on politicians to do the right thing for us. We farmers must take matters into our own hands--so that we can put food into the mouths of others.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 

Free Trade Fair Vote

Oct 03, 2008
The strangest thing about last week’s presidential debate was that neither candidate talked about the importance of trade.
 
The forum hardly could have been more ideal. Scheduled by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, it was supposed to focus on foreign policy--and it did, but not before an extended discussion about the financial crisis.
 
The last-minute switch of topics was appropriate given the magnitude of the meltdown on Wall Street. Americans deserve to know, in detail, what John McCain and Barack Obama think about the problem and how they would propose to handle it.
 
So those were the issues: economics and foreign policy. International trade is a perfect blend of the two. Yet it didn’t come up at all.
 
Well, that’s not exactly true. Obama uttered the word “trade” twice, once in reference to Afghanistan’s poppies (which are used to make opium) and again in reference to Iran’s ties to China and Russia. McCain didn’t use the word at all. Nor did he mention the problem of protectionism--a subject that he’s quite comfortable discussing.
 
Granted, there was a lot to discuss and only a limited amount of time. Even so, trade is an extremely important topic. So far this year, a surge in U.S. exports is the only thing that has kept our country from meeting the most common definition of a recession (back-to-back quarters of negative growth).
 
We may be headed for a recession, and possibly a bad one. But think about it: The only reason we aren’t in one already is not because of a vigorous economy here at home, but instead because of our ability to sell American-made goods and services to foreign customers.
 
The next president must see trade as a fundamental part of any economic recovery plan. Unfortunately, no president can do this without Trade Promotion Authority, which Congress allowed to expire last year.
 
That’s one issue upon which McCain and Obama should be able to agree: the next president must have TPA. Both candidates ought to pledge that no matter who wins on Election Day, the loser will return to the Senate and cross party lines to support the next president’s request for this vital power.
 
In its essentials, TPA allows potential trade deals to have up-or-down votes before Congress. As a practical matter, our government can’t negotiate any deals to remove foreign tariffs without it.
 
Both candidates have made efforts to show their bipartisan credentials. In the debate last week, McCain called himself “a maverick” and Obama boasted about his legislative work with Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican. By promising to work together on TPA, the rivals would go a long way toward proving their credentials.
 
One of TPA’s problems may be its lousy name, which smacks of both tourist-board boosterism and government-run industrial policy. So I propose that we rechristen TPA with a new name that is more in keeping with what it actually seeks to accomplish.
 
In the future, all prospective trade deals negotiated by our government for the benefit of Americans should be subjected to the “Free Trade Fair Vote,” or FTFV.
 
When an administration concludes a trade accord with another country, the arrangement should go before Congress under the provisions of FTFV. That way, important economic policies can receive the debate and deliberation they need without as much of the partisan bickering and legislative trickery. That’s both putting “Country First” (a McCain slogan) and a “Change We Can Believe In” (an Obama refrain).
 
Under FTFV, Congress would have the authority to reject a proposed trade agreement. That’s important, because Congress has the right to have a voice in forming U.S. trade policy.
 
Yet politicians shouldn’t be able to dodge their legislatives responsibilities. They should have to vote yes or no. We expect our leaders to make tough choices rather than duck for cover. FTFV enables them to do the former; its absence guarantees the latter.
 
Over the next four and a half weeks, McCain and Obama will have ample time to discuss trade policy in their two remaining debates as well as on the campaign trail.
 
So let’s encourage them to do that--and also to go on the record about their support for the Free Trade Fair Vote.
 
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
 
 
 
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